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Evolution of a Controversy

George Webb

The Evolution-Creation Struggle. Michael Ruse. viii + 327 pp. Harvard University Press, 2005. $25.95.

The summer of 2005, which marked the 80th anniversary of the Scopes trial, provided various reminders of the continuing controversy surrounding the teaching of evolution in the public schools of the United States. The annual reenactment of the trial in its hometown of Dayton, Tennessee, attracted even greater attention than usual, in large part because of numerous efforts throughout the nation to have "intelligent design" taught alongside the theory of evolution in science classes in the public schools. This campaign appeared to gain important support in August when President George W. Bush and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist announced that they favored the approach. Fortunately, the summer also witnessed the arrival on bookstore shelves of The Evolution-Creation Struggle, a carefully researched and cogently argued examination of this long-standing controversy by noted philosopher of science Michael Ruse. An observer of and participant in the debate on the topic for the past three decades, Ruse offers his readers historical and philosophical insight into the issues and ideas involved.

Deftly analyzing the last few centuries of Western intellectual history, Ruse convincingly argues that both "sides" in the debate may best be understood as responses to an underlying crisis of faith. This crisis developed gradually, reaching its zenith in the Enlightenment, as the verities associated with traditional religion came under attack. Responses tended to take one of two diverging paths: Many people, rejecting intellectual currents that they viewed as having removed God from the processes of nature, embraced an emotional evangelicalism. Others took a more reason-based approach, accepting the growing importance of science in modern thought and attempting to create an appropriate faith. This road led ultimately to deism and to a belief in progress, not just in the natural world but also in human culture and society.

For people on either path, the question was what the future was going to be like and what their current obligations were. The evangelicals were "premillennialists"—they believed that Jesus was going to return before the millennium (the thousand-year period before Judgment Day in the Book of Revelations) and that people should prepare for his coming by making themselves morally pure. Individual salvation and the return of Christ would be the precursors to a better world. (Ruse cites the current popularity of the Left Behind books as an excellent example of this particular religious outlook.) The believers in progress were postmillennialists; because they didn't think Jesus would return until after the millennium, they thought that people should try now to perfect human society. This embrace of cultural progress, in Ruse's view, prepared the ground for the development of evolutionary ideas. But it was Darwin's ability to craft a "science" of evolution that provided sympathetic individuals with "a reason to believe" in the new theory.

Ruse continues his analysis by tracing the development of evolutionism, a phenomenon distinct from evolution or evolutionary theory. Evolutionism was a cultural concept, a philosophy of progress that could be embraced with few qualms by many religious thinkers, particularly postmillennial Christians. As time went on, in fact, many progressive theologians appear to have downplayed the significance of a literal Second Coming and to have emphasized instead social and cultural reform as part of the church's mission. As Ruse points out, many contemporary evolutionists remain committed to this postmillennial religious view, seeing no necessary conflict between their scientific and religious thoughts and activities.

Premillennial Christians, of course, have had a different response to evolution. Progress has no place in their religious outlook, and science is essentially irrelevant. In the early 20th century, this outlook provided the foundation for fundamentalism and its most famous artifact, the Scopes trial of 1925. Fundamentalism and the premillennial perspective continued in various forms throughout the rest of the century and remain central to creationist and intelligent-design efforts.

Having enlightened his readers concerning the religious aspects of this continuing controversy, Ruse provides a concise survey of the key ideas in evolutionary theory during the 20th century, showing how the Modern Synthesis greatly enhanced the explanatory power of Darwin's ideas. He notes that theoretical developments over the past 50 years or so (which he summarizes) appear to have led to a more diverse "religious" response among evolutionary scientists, ranging from efforts to separate the two spheres of thought to the militant atheism embraced by Richard Dawkins. Ruse has previously examined the relation between science and faith in his 2001 book Can a Darwinian Be a Christian?, but placing this topic in the context of current discontents is particularly valuable. He makes a strong case that many Darwinian evolutionists do indeed employ their ideas as something of a secular religion, but do so in the context of promoting progress in the manner of the postmillennialism of earlier days.

Ruse carefully examines the creationist and intelligent-design movements, showing clearly how the growth of premillennial religious activity following World War II led to the resurrection of flood geology and young-Earth creationism. He next looks at the development of the intelligent-design version of antievolutionism, taking the arguments seriously but pointing out the underlying religious structure of the major ideas. He also provides an excellent analysis of the scientific weaknesses of intelligent design, stressing that it fails to provide an agenda for future research. Equally important, intelligent-design research yields no results and fails to make predictions that might lead to future discoveries. Its greatest shortcoming of all, however, is its reliance on outside intervention (or "miracles") as the ultimate foundation of intelligent-design explanations. Ruse is very uncomfortable with such concepts, as they are nothing less than "science stoppers" that make it impossible for the study of the natural world to go forward.

Although Ruse acknowledges that evolutionists offer the most convincing explanation of life's origin and development, he notes that Darwinian evolution does, indeed, "impinge" on religious thinking. Scientists must come to terms with this most important aspect of the clash and take appropriate steps to counterbalance the strength that antievolutionists currently enjoy in the United States. He suggests that scientists should work more diligently with Christian evolutionists to counter creationist activity, criticizing those such as Dawkins who show open contempt for religion and its practitioners. In the final analysis, Ruse calls on his evolutionist colleagues to understand both their own assumptions and those of their opponents. This call is "not a plea for weak-kneed compromise," he says, "but a more informed and self-aware approach to the issues. First understanding, and then some strategic moves." Without such understanding, the controversy between the creationist and evolutionist outlooks will remain little more than an exercise in name-calling. Given the political and public support for antievolutionist ideas, perhaps we should give Ruse's proposal serious thought.

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